EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. -- His young children in tow, Todd Bowles was heading from his news conference to his locker room, the winners' locker room, when he stopped for a moment to talk about a vanquished opponent -- Bill Belichick -- who is not in the habit of losing the kind of mind games he'd just lost to the New York Jets.
Asked during the week about his relationship with the man who has owned the Jets every bit as much as Woody Johnson has, Bowles said, "I don't have one." But after the rookie head coach benefited from the rare Belichickian audible gone terribly wrong -- the decision to kick to the Jets after winning the overtime coin toss -- Bowles sounded like a man interested in establishing a future relationship based on achievement, and not on the empty bluster that defined his predecessor, Rex Ryan.
"He's unbelievably great," Bowles told ESPN.com about Belichick, not Ryan. "I don't know if beating him means too much to my team because it was such a crucial situation for us, but I have the utmost respect for him as a person and as a coach. They are a great team, man. They've clinched [a playoff spot] already, and we're trying to get where they are."
Told his no-nonsense, robo-tone approach resembles Belichick's, minus the confrontational edge (for now), Bowles laughed out loud and said, "I hope it's not looks." He said Belichick shook his hand after the Jets' 26-20 victory, told him it was a good game and immediately moved on to the New England Patriots' next and final chance to lock down the No. 1 seed on the AFC side of the postseason bracket.
"I'm sure they're not going to lose too much sleep over it," Bowles said. "We needed it more than they did. We're just trying to play the game the right way and not get too high over a win or too low over a loss, because that affects you the next week. ... But you can't sit back and exhale until the season's over. I can exhale for two hours and then it's like, 'Oh s---, it's Buffalo on Monday.' That's the life of a coach."
It has been a distinguished life for the 52-year-old Bowles, a tough guy from a tough town, Elizabeth, New Jersey, about 18 miles from the MetLife Stadium scene of his best day as a football coach. A day when Bowles strongly suggested he is the perfect antidote to Ryan's buffoonery and, more important, that he is capable of building a program Belichick respects and even admires.
The Jets had squandered a 17-3 third-quarter lead to a franchise that has forever tormented them, and all the signs pointed toward the death of the home team's four-game winning streak and the clinching of New England's home-field advantage through the playoffs. It didn't matter that injuries forced Belichick to pull offensive linemen and skill-position guys out of the cheap seats, or that Tom Brady was taking a fierce pounding for most of the game. On fourth-and-9 in the closing minutes, the great quarterback found his equally great tight end, Rob Gronkowski, for a 26-yard catch made next-to-impossible by the fact the Jets' big-hitting safety, Calvin Pryor, tried to saw Gronk in half.
Brady threw a touchdown pass to a wide-open James White on the next play, and nobody in the stands wearing a faded Keyshawn Johnson or Wayne Chrebet jersey thought he or she was heading for a happy ending. Even when Belichick ordered one of his captains, Matthew Slater, to defer in the event the Patriots won the overtime toss, those fatalistic Jets fans had to be thinking Belichick was assuming his usual role of Lucy, about to pull the ball away from an always unsuspecting Charlie Brown.
Remember, the Jets haven't appeared in the Super Bowl since the year man stepped on the moon, while Belichick is no less a Super Bowl fixture than that ungodly media day. The last time Belichick made an apparently bizarre endgame choice, he was refusing to call timeout in February while staring across the field at his Super Bowl counterpart, Seattle's Pete Carroll, who was melting down at the worst possible time.
Bowles didn't have his team near the goal line, ready to two-peat at the Patriots' expense. This wasn't a title game Sunday, even if it felt that way for the Jets. They knew they had to win to protect their playoff hopes. Just as Bowles suggested, they needed to prevail more than the Patriots did.
So Ryan Fitzpatrick took the gift-wrapped ball and advanced it 80 yards in five plays. He hit Quincy Enunwa for a big play, Brandon Marshall for a big play and Eric Decker for the biggest play -- a six-yard touchdown pass at the expense of Malcolm Butler, Super Bowl hero -- before the Jets started celebrating New Year's Eve a bit early.
"I was a little disappointed," Marshall said. "Before the game, I broke the team down and I said, 'When we win, don't act like you won the Super Bowl.' And we won, then everyone stormed the field. Freaking fireworks goes off. I guess they enjoyed the moment."
For good reason, too. This was only the fifth time the Jets have won at least 10 games in a season since Brady became New England's starter early in 2001; Brady and Belichick have reached double figures 14 times over the same period.
The stadium-wide talk afterward centered on Belichick's coin-toss call; Slater, curious about the first-possession-touchdown-ends-the-game rule, kept asking his coach if he was sure he wanted to go through with it. "I think he was looking at me like, 'Are you concussed?' " said Slater, who could've chosen his words more carefully given the current climate around the league and in movie theaters near you.
Oh well. The Jets later committed an unforced error of their own, retweeting Belichick's quote on the gambit ("We thought that was the best thing to do.") and adding the word, "Agreed." The Jets have no business tweaking a coach who has dominated them and repeatedly has validated his decision to run away from them after Bill Parcells quit way back when.
They had every right to pump up their own coach for leading them in a poised and dignified way. Bowles hired the right offensive coordinator, Chan Gailey, to get the most out of Fitzpatrick, who arrived in New Jersey with a career record of 33-55-1. Under Bowles, Marshall became the first Jet to catch 100 passes in a season, and Bowles' defense has played at the same high level reached by his Arizona defense. The Jets also have shown a resilience not seen in Ryan's final four years, a resilience embodied Sunday by Enunwa (who overcame a critical drop) and by Fitzpatrick (who overcame his strip-sack fumble that gave New England a touchdown).
Marshall said Bowles inspired this culture change after the loss in Houston dropped the Jets to 5-5, when he ripped into his team for blowing opportunity after opportunity. The coach cut an underperforming player, Quinton Coples, a former first-round pick who had played loud music on the flight home, and then lit into his team again.
Calvin Pace, 13-year NFL veteran, said those post-Houston speeches were the angriest he has seen Bowles in the regular season. "He's not a vocal guy," Pace said, "but when he speaks, his message comes across and speaks volumes. We knew that he meant business, and it changed us."
Pace called Bowles' hot-and-heavy training camp "hell," which would be a fairly accurate description for what the Jets will experience if they lose a playoff berth next weekend at Ryan's place. But win, lose or draw in Buffalo, Bowles accomplished something Sunday that can't be destroyed in three hours of Week 17 football.
He has set a tone of consistency and professionalism that was supposed to be the trademark of their losing friends next door, the Giants, the same consistency and professionalism he showed as a championship player in Washington.
"We haven't arrived yet," Bowles warned.
But he has, the tough guy from Elizabeth. The rookie coach just beat a Hall of Famer at his own game, and when it was over, Bill Belichick said a lot while saying little. He called the Jets "well-coached." He said Todd Bowles' players "did their job."